IU women continue to make history ahead of NCAA Tournament

The last stage of the season approaches a year after the Indiana women’s basketball team made its grandest postseason run to the NCAA Elite Eight.

They are poised for a do-over, at least, while hoping for even more.

The Hoosiers, whom coach Teri Moren has time after time referred to as a resilient group of players, learned Sunday night what path must be followed to accomplish more this 2021-22 season.

They received a No. 3 seed for the tournament in the Bridgeport Regional, their highest ever granted, and will open play by hosting a first-round game Saturday versus the University of Charlotte at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, another first.

Moren, in her eighth season coaching IU, declared those recognitions of stature “historic for our program. Eight years ago, this is really what we envisioned. Each year, we took another step and another step.”

At 22-8 and ranked highly all season, IU had little to be nervous about come the announcement of the bracket for the 68 teams invited to play on. It was really only a matter of how high they would be seeded and if that would be good enough to gain home-court play in the early rounds.

“We will be playing in front of Hoosier Nation,” said senior guard Ali Patberg. “We wanted to host. That was a goal of ours.”

Indiana was ranked 11th in The Associated Press poll of last week, the day after the Hoosiers last played. They were rated as high as fifth earlier in the year.

Indiana won three games in the Big Ten tournament, beating two other ranked teams, before falling in the title game to Iowa.

“We’re all very, very proud we were able to do what we did the last four days in Indianapolis,” Moren said when it was over.

The home-away-from-home feel at Gainbridge Fieldhouse was an indication the Hoosiers may be blossoming into more of Indiana’s team than just Bloomington’s team.

Certain sections of the stands were filled with so much bright red clothing the players may have needed sunglasses to cope if they glanced in that direction.

“It’s really special for us to see how excited people are for Indiana women’s basketball,” said star guard Grace Berger, “and it wasn’t always that way.”

This season was a hard slog.

Leading scorer and rebounder Mackenzie Holmes was gaining recognition as one of the best players in the country when she injured a knee in mid-January and missed a month of playing time. Holmes has slowly, gradually, steadily been returning to her old self.

Having all of last week after the Big Ten tournament to practice at her own pace and now having nother whole week before the game versus 22-9 Conference USA titlist Charlotte is a bonus benefit.

“As much time as I get will help,” Holmes said Sunday.

The Hoosiers also sat out 15 days because of COVID-19 quarantine. The 1-4 blip on the record going into the league tournament raised questions. This is where IU intangibles kicked in. Moren does not skimp on the praise.

“They’re tough, they’re together and their chemistry is off the charts,” she said. “They don’t blink.”

Those characteristics were on display during the Big Ten event. The Hoosiers have limited depth, and when the tournament began, backup forward Kiandra Browne was in street clothes due to a hip injury. She did dress the rest of the tournament but barely played.

The team also started a game with forward Aleksa Gulbe nowhere in sight. She was elsewhere being ill before appearing later in the contest looking somewhat pale.

A look at IU’s schedule shows just how tough the Hoosiers had it. There are six Big Ten teams in the NCAAs. IU lost to No. 8 Iowa three times, fell to No. 12 Michigan once, won two out of three from No. 13 Maryland and two from No. 14 Ohio State. IU split with Nebraska.

In non-conference play, the Hoosiers lost close games to No. 2 Stanford (28-3), winner of the Pac-12, and No. 3 North Carolina State (29-3), winner of the ACC. But they bested Kentucky, the nation’s hottest team and Southeastern Conference tournament champs. Kentucky meets 24-4 Princeton, also in Bloomington, and the winner faces the winner of IU-Charlotte on March 21.

IU also handled Fairfield (25-6), winner of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, and Quinnipiac (21-11), third in that league, and Southern Illinois (21-9), winner of the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season crown.

IU got where it is through heavy reliance on Berger, Holmes, Gulbe, Patberg and Nicole Cardano-Hillary.

If everyone stays in one piece and stays out of foul trouble, there really is no telling how far the Indiana women can go this March, whether it is through Madness or determination.